I like to think that xXx has a group of strong riders in the Cat 5's, which has made it all the more frustrating that none of us has seen the podium so far this year. With mandatory upgrades to the 4's looming on the horizon for many, the 29-mile road race of Hillsboro-Roubaix presented a good opportunity for one of us to take a top three before moving on to race in a more seasoned field.
Coming into the race, there were three factors that inspired confidence that this would be our race: 1) with 5 of us making the trip, we fielded the biggest team in the race; 2) we had the collective wisdom of many teammates who'd raced Hillsboro before, and WE ACTUALLY TALKED TO THEM ABOUT IT; 3) personally, I was feeling well-rested and ready to go to work.
With respect to point #2, I need to thank Adam Herndon, who answered a bunch of questions on the forum. I also want to give a shout-out to Tracy Dangott and Erik Didriksen, who over Reubens at the No-Lycra Lunch the day before the race dished out some sage advice as well. Their collective wisdom:
1) The first race of the day is for staging. Be up front.
2) Stay near the front. The roads are narrow and the field is big, leaving little room for forward movement.
3) Don't go for it on the final hill. You're more likely to blow up than to drop anyone.
4) The brick section, though relatively short, is rough and will beat the crap out of your legs.
Armed with this knowledge, Tom Perotti, Jin Choi, Felix Rosen, and I got to staging early and lined up with our front wheels on the line. Jin, Tom, and I pulled the field for the first 8 miles of the race. This may seem like a lot of work, but it served a purpose: set a manageable tempo at the start, avoid any mid-pack mayhem (I heard later there was a crash on the first corner...), and be one of the first through the hairpin left at mile 8. Not surprisingly, the other 60+ riders were content to let me sit up front and set a pace that knew I could keep up all day, and the peloton quickly settled into the race. Coming out of the turn at mile 8, I was able to slide back to 4th-5th wheel, settle in, and take a welcome break.
Tom and Jin had pre-driven the course that morning and had decided on a good spot to make a move. Just past 14 miles, Tom pulled back up to the front with me and we conspired to ramp up the pace around the next corner. We made a right turn into the wind and cranked it up, stringing out the pack and dropping even more riders. Riders from other teams began to take up the mantle as well to keep the pressure on. Out of nowhere, Jin made a furious move around the left, catching everyone by surprise, quickly opening a sizable gap and inciting panic in the field. Tom and I tried to put the brakes on the peloton, but the others weren't having it. The one rider that had managed to go with Jin flamed out, and the now surging peloton caught them up.
After the rush to chase down Jin's break, I found myself sitting around 15th with 8 miles to go. We turned onto the one wide, well-paved road in Montgomery County, and it was off to the races. A small gap opened in front of me, and when I turned around to see who was there to help me bridge back up, there was only one rider behind me. We had shed 75% of the field. The bad news was that I'd be bridging the gap on my own. I lit another match, threw up in my mouth a little bit (not kidding), and made it back to the pack before the climb into town. A crosswind had us strung out in an echelon across nearly the entire road (yellow line rule be damned), making any more forward movement impossible. We hit the hill hard, but I maintained my pace, insistent on leaving something in my legs for the finish. Back down the hill, onto the bricks, and my legs were starting to feel the effects of having spent so much time in front. I managed to pass a few more riders on the way home, could not match the sprint of the rider who'd been sitting on my wheel, and crossed the line...unhappy that I missed the podium, but still satisfied at having made a plan, kept to it, and finished in the top 20.
It was only later when Tom, Jin, and I were recapping the race that Felix let me know I'd taken 10th. Given the size of the field and the work it took to get there, that was by far my best finish yet. And with the way we worked together as a team, both in preparation for and during the race, I'm confident one of us will be standing on that podium in the next few weeks.